Not just sheep

(Please remember in prayer the 180 Nigerian girls who remain in captivity, their families and all women and girls who are trafficked or who are victims of violence.)

Easter 4 2014

John 10:1-10

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us by name and who trusts us to know the shepherd from the thief. Amen.

I wonder just how much you absorb when you hear the gospel read on a Sunday morning? How well do you think you would go if I threw a good old-fashioned comprehension test at you today? My suspicion is that none of us would achieve a particularly good result – myself included. Today’s gospel is full of confusing and inconsistent metaphors and allusions. There are gatekeepers, thieves, bandits shepherds and gates and the difficult question is – what represents whom? Presumably, the thieves and bandits are the Pharisees, but is Jesus the gate, the gatekeeper or the shepherd or all three? Who are the strangers – are they the same as the thieves and bandits or do they represent someone else? One problem is that the text seems to jump from one idea to another – gate keeping, following, listening, destroying, giving life. It is difficult to work out just what Jesus is trying to get across. No wonder even Jesus’ listeners were confused (10:6).

If you were in my New Testament class and we were examining today’s gospel, the first thing I would suggest is that you read and reread the text, preferably in Greek.

Once you were familiar with these ten verses, I would suggest that you read them in context, that you investigate what comes before and after the text and whether those passages shed light on what you have just read. In this instance it is obvious that what comes after is important for our understanding of the passage. The theme of shepherd continues in some way or another until the end of chapter 10. However the connection with Chapter 9 is less evident. Only if we take a closer look does it become clear that what we know as chapter 10 is in fact a continuation of Chapter 9. The first sentence of chapter ten continues Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees and the connection between the two chapters is strengthened when we see that 10:21 refers to the discussion about the healing of the blind man.

What all this means is that if we really want to understand the ten verses set down as the gospel for today, we have to read from the beginning of Chapter 9 to the end of Chapter 10 and to try to make sense of the relationship between an account of healing and a discussion about shepherding.

A number of things are going on here, but the key to the relationship between the two chapters is the controversy about Jesus’ identity and the argument between the man who was blind and the Pharisees. The blind man whose sight has been restored is convinced that Jesus is a prophet sent from God. He holds firm to this view in spite of the Pharisees trying to convince him otherwise. Not only that, he identifies Jesus as God – in response to Jesus’ question: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” he acknowledges Jesus as Lord and falls down and worships him. The Pharisees however, refuse to accept that Jesus can have been sent by God let alone be God. They prefer to believe that Jesus is a sinner (9:16, 24,31) or worse still that he is possessed by a demon (10:20,21). Jesus threatens their position and what they believe about God and God’s way of relating to the people.

At the heart of the discussion then, is an issue about leadership and authority. Who can be trusted to lead the people of God – the priests and the Pharisees or this itinerant teacher/healer – and who decides between the two? The eyes of the blind man have been opened. He can see that the true leader, the true shepherd is the one who is trusted by and who cares for and respects the people. The Pharisees demonstrate their blindness, because they cannot see Jesus for who he is.

Contrary to expectation it is not the Pharisees who have the authority to determine who is or is not from God – that authority belongs to the people. The fact that the man born blind identified Jesus has demonstrated that the “ordinary” people, those of no status in the Jewish worldview, are able to make up their own minds about God and about God’s representatives. No matter how hard the Pharisees try, the blind man refuses to be cowed, or to change his opinion about Jesus. He does not need to be told who to follow. Whatever arguments the Pharisees use, he knows that Jesus cannot be a sinner because God does not listen to sinners – only to those who know and obey him. He knows (despite the Pharisees’ statements to the contrary) that if Jesus was not from God he would not be able to do anything (9:33) let alone give sight to the blind.

The question of true authority, true leadership is decided by the people. They (the sheep) will not follow a stranger nor will they listen to thieves and bandits (the Pharisees). It is the people, the sheep, who recognise where true authority lies. They know instinctively who it is who will lead them “in right paths” and allow them “to go in and go out and find pasture”. Their eyes have been opened to the true nature of their religious leaders. They are thieves and bandits, strangers whom they will not follow.

Jesus (the good shepherd) is not a benign, harmless figure in the world of first century Palestine. Quite the contrary – he is a revolutionary who turns everything upside down. Not only does he undermine the authority of the Pharisees he also makes the radical claim that the sheep – the ordinary, uneducated people – are able to make up their own minds as to whom they should follow. It is they, not the religious leaders who are able to recognise the true nature of the Pharisees and of Jesus and to decide between them.

Jesus – the gate, the shepherd – has made it possible for us to have a relationship with God that is not mediated by Temple rituals, a priestly caste or by the observance of the law. It doesn’t matter whether we are ordained or lay, well-educated or poorly educated, professional or manual laborer each of us through Jesus can have direct access to God. The gate is open, the shepherd is calling us by name. All it takes is for us to respond.


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